Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A NIGHT AT THE MATCH



A NIGHT AT THE MATCH
(An outsider's view)



Curzon Ashton FC v Westfields FC
F.A. Cup 2016. First round replay Mon 14.11.16
By Brian Gorman

I moved to the small suburb of Audenshaw 18 months ago, after living in Manchester city centre for a good few years. Things are much different out here. My usual pint costs me over £4 in the city. Here, it’s around £2.70. That’s a pretty big deal. It’s also quieter, less people rushing about, less hipsters, and fashion victims. It feels real, around these parts. There are people who have lived in the same small area all their lives; families in the same house for generations. I like it here. Around once a week, I walk into Ashton town centre for an evening drinking session. It takes me approximately 30 minutes, which is ok.
Just over a week ago, I was channel hopping, when I caught the second half of an F.A. Cup first round match between Westfields FC and Curzon Ashton FC. I’d never heard of either team, and had no idea where in the UK they were actually located. It was a good match. Curzon were on top most of the half, and played surprisingly well for a non-league team (they are currently struggling in the lower regions of the Vanarama National League North; just 3 points behind FC United Of Manchester). I’m more used to watching Premier League games (on tv), and the odd international. The match ended in a draw. I then realised that the game had been played somewhere down South (actually, in Hereford), and the away team, Curzon, were based just a couple of miles from me. Interesting. I thought no more about it until this Monday 14th November. I was flicking through The Guardian Online, and noticed the replay was scheduled that evening. Now, you may think that I’m a dreamer, but I’m a great believer in synchronicity/coincidence. It was mid-afternoon, I was still struggling with a cough and cold I’d had for the past week, and the weather wasn’t promising, but I had an idea. An F.A. Cup tie is a mighty big deal for a small club, and the occasion would certainly be an emotional one for the fans, and a tantalising possibility of a financial windfall for the club. I made a decision; I wanted to write a report on the occasion. Not a match report, but a memoir of an evening. The whole evening. I checked out the Curzon Ashton website, and emailed the chief executive. I offered to do a write-up, and I got an almost immediate response from Natalie Atkinson. I was invited along, and told my name would be on the door.
I did a little more research, discovered the ground (The Tameside Stadium) wasn’t far from Ashton rail station, and checked out the nearest pub (The Wood Man). I wrapped up warm, stuck a rainproof hat in the pocket of my rainproof (except it really isn’t) coat, on top of a suit jacket (I like to be smart), and set off. I prefer to walk most places, but as I was passing the bus stop near Guide Bridge Rail Station, a 347 appeared, so I jumped on. Alighting at the bus station, I consulted my hand-drawn map (call me old-fashioned), and headed towards the ground. I found The Wood Man, and popped in for a pre-match pint. What a great little boozer! Strange décor, but a bunch of friendly locals (one or two were quite well -inebriated for 7.15pm on a November Monday), and attentive bar staff. I was told I should get a taxi to the ground, as it was a bit far to walk from there. But, I’d done my homework, and I had my map! It took me just ten minutes (lightweights!). I wandered through a quiet housing estate (the mist dampening any noise from nearby traffic), and headed towards the glow from the floodlights.

Approaching The Tameside Stadium

 I made for the main reception area, as Natalie had instructed me to, and felt quite the VIP heading past the queue at the turnstiles (at least I THINK there were turnstiles. Maybe things had changed since I last attended a game over ten years ago). The young man on the door was a little flustered as he couldn’t find the names of several people also attempting to gain entry ahead of me. Luckily, my name was there, and I was ushered in. He seemed to be gesturing down a corridor, so I headed that way. I was soon lost. After wandering outside, and seeing no obvious Press area, I headed back in and improvised. I found the main bar, and there was Natalie, clearing empty pint glasses up. The Chief Executive was helping the bar staff (I bet you don’t get this at Old Trafford!). I recognised her, as I’d just had time to see an item on Granada Reports just before I’d left home earlier, and Natalie had been interviewed. I introduced myself, and she showed me out into the main stand, and to my seat. She was very welcoming, down-to-earth, and busy, busy, busy (whilst looking impossibly glamorous)!
As I walked through the bar door, and out into the stand, I was suddenly hit by the atmosphere. The pitch looked gorgeous under the floodlights, and the place seemed to be full. There was a real family atmosphere, but (curiously) hardly any chanting or aggressive behaviour (which I had, perhaps naively, expected). I also noticed a good few rival supporters sitting with the home fans. As I spend most of my time sitting down anyway (I’m a writer/artist), I decided to stand near the cameramen and local radio broadcasters, rather than take my seat. Across the far side of the pitch was, I assumed, the away fans’ stand. It wasn’t quite as luxurious as the home stand, and didn’t appear to have a bar attached to it. The Westfields supporters looked like one big dark, almost static mass, and as they had little to cheer about over the next couple of hours, there was, therefore, little scarf-waving or leaping up and down out of seats. I did feel quite sorry for them, as I imagined their view across to my side was quite a contrast – happy looking locals, a brightly-lit bar, and a nearby café. I wondered if all grounds were designed like this (to give the home team, and fans, as much of a psychological and physical advantage as possible). I didn’t have a programme or team sheet, so I had no idea which team was which. For some reason I assumed Curzon Ashton were in white, as it was the white-shirted players that seemed to be on top from the start. This soon changed, and the blue-shirted team hit back quickly; dominating the entire first half. It was only when the first goal went in (a low drive from No.10 Adam Morgan), and the home fans cheered, that I realised I’d guessed wrongly. For mid-November, it was a fairly warm evening, and I was completely comfortable standing behind the back row of the main stand. 



Just after the first goal went in, I got chatting to a smartly-dressed, alert-looking young man who introduced himself as the club’s press officer, Aaron Flanagan. Whilst keeping a close eye on the game, Aaron indulged this fish-out-of-water, and filled me in on a few details. The cup run was a Godsend for clubs like Curzon Ashton, as it brings in much-needed revenue. Getting to a first round replay, and (hopefully) winning it, would mean around £100,000 income, and would secure the club’s future for a good few years. Tonight there was approximately 1100 people in the ground, whereas a regular attendance would number in the low hundreds. I asked about the players, and was told they were only on a match fee of around £50, and many of them had to make a lot of sacrifices to compete for a place in the squad. I noticed the Westfield’s assistant manager jumping up and down, and screaming to his players throughout the game, and was informed that he’d been up at 3am that morning, milking cows down in Hereford. He would be getting home around 1am, and would probably be up working again at dawn (such are the downsides of non-league football!). This energetic behaviour was in complete contrast to Curzon’s manager, John Flanagan, who was much more composed in a Sven Goran-Eriksson kind of way. Most of the staff at the club were volunteers (including Aaron, who is also a sports reporter for The Mirror), and this was only the second time in the club’s history that they’d reached this round of the cup. If Curzon won, they would be playing either Wimbledon or Bury in the next round. Aaron said they’d prefer Bury, as a local derby would be an exciting prospect (however, it was Wimbledon who won the tie 5-0). Being past winners of the cup (beating Liverpool in a famous 1988 final), Wimbledon will be equally as exciting, and add a little glamour to the game. On 34 minutes, the impressive Adam Morgan scored again, with a superb curler in to the top left-hand corner of the net, to make it 2-0, and the home fans were in cup heaven.
I got myself a pint at half-time, in the impressive Leisure Suite, and had a nice chat with the lovely and efficient Abbie and Lianne. I missed the start of the second half, as I was expecting an announcement (I’m too used to the theatre!), but guzzled my Stella Artois down (reassuringly less expensive than city centre pubs) and headed back outside (no booze beyond the door!). Curzon dominated again, and it was noticeable how there was much more urgency from both sides as the match went on. There was a hell of a lot at stake for both clubs, and with Westfields being a couple of divisions lower, the pressure was on for the home side to wrap things up. It really was end-to-end stuff, and a far more exciting game than I’d expected. The players cannot compete, obviously, with the insane physical levels of Premier League teams, but there was a lot of skill out there. Both keepers made several outstanding saves, and both sides hit the post a couple of times. It was all over when local teacher Niall Cummins netted the third in the 70th minute, and the relief was palpable. I had a lot of sympathy for Westfields, as they never gave up, and worked hard, right up to the final whistle. They had their consolation with a 92nd minute goal from Nick Harrhy, and the whole crowd applauded. It was an incredibly good-natured atmosphere, and a wonderful contrast to the often psychotic behaviour of some fans at Premier league games. The home supporters applauded and cheered every substitution (for both teams), and rival fans mixed happily in the bar afterwards. It was quite illuminating to see the home team players arrive in the bar, and help themselves to a small bowl of pasta, and a glass of champagne. They’d worked hard to earn their club a fantastic prize – a second round home game against ex F.A. Cup winners Wimbledon, and a cash bonanza to secure Curzon Ashton’s future. I was glad I came out.

Winning manager John Flanagan speaks to the press.

Walking home through the Autumnal mist, I ruminated on the evening. The atmosphere had been fantastic, and the generosity of the club in welcoming a complete stranger along to a historic cup tie gave me a warm glow inside. I took a few mobile phone shots as I left the ground; the place had a romantic shimmer about it, in the late evening.

An atmospheric end.

 I now needed an after match pint, and headed back towards The Wood Man. It was a perfect end to an unexpectedly exciting evening, as I downed a few pints of Guinness with Nyree the bar lady, and was shown the Turin Shroud-like image of Jesus she’d recently discovered on the back of a cubicle door in The Ladies. I kid you not.
Thanks to Natalie, Aaron, everybody at Curzon Ashton FC, and Nyree and her staff & customers at The Wood Man.

Jesus in The Ladies.



Brian Gorman 17.11.16

Monday, November 14, 2016

BREAKING THE CODE


BREAKING THE CODE

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Until 19th Nov
By Hugh Whitemore
Directed by Robert Hastie

Review by Brian Gorman
4 Stars

Local lad Daniel Rigby (born in Cheadle) steps into some mighty big shoes here, taking on the role of the iconic Alan Turing (the father of modern day computers, and renowned for helping to save millions of lives during WW2). Going up against thespian titans Derek Jacobi and Benedict Cumberbatch, he more than holds his own in a restrained, unshowy, beautifully subtle characterisation. Hugh Whitemore’s play tells the tragic tale of a naïve genius brought down by an ungrateful society that would rather poke its collective nose into our bedrooms, than accept the individual characteristics of its people. 
It’s 1952, and Turing is interrogated and arrested by the Manchester constabulary, after reporting a burglary at his Wilmslow home. Unfortunately for Turing, his honesty about the prime suspect (a young ‘bit of rough’ he’d been having an affair with) proves to be his undoing. With homosexuality a criminal act, he is sent for trial, and forced to accept chemical castration (in the form of Oestrogen injections) instead of serving time behind bars. The sympathetic interrogating officer (an excellent Phil Cheadle; firm-handed but fair) has no option but to take action when Turing blurts out the truth of his illicit relationship with the 18 year-old delinquent, but is keen to know more about his enigmatic (no pun intended) prisoner. Turing relates the story of his wartime work for the government, how he was tasked with deciphering the German Enigma code (which he cracked), and how the work of he and his colleagues at Bletchley Park helped to reduce the war by an estimated 2 years, saving millions of lives.

Artwork by Brian Gorman 

Ben Stones’ set is simple, a bare wooden floor with a couple of chairs and a desk. Illuminated rods are occasionally lowered into place to create a skeleton frame suggesting various acting spaces. It’s pretty perfunctory, and adds little to the atmosphere. The same goes for Richard Howell’s lighting, which is basic, unflattering, and reminded me of 1980s American television movies. We could have done with a little more warmth, perhaps some period tunes, as Turing bumbles about like a schoolboy Alan Bennett, but there’s little sense of time or place. After all, The Royal Exchange is only about ten minutes’ walk from the place on Oxford Road, where Turing met Ron Miller (his bit of rough), and that particular area is pretty atmospheric with the cobblestones leading down to the iconic Salisbury pub by Oxford Road Railway Station.
Geraldine Alexander is perfect as Turing’s mousey mother, fussing over her son’s lack of basic hygiene, and quietly accepting his eccentricities. Raad Rawi almost steals the show as the wild-haired, kindly Dilwyn Knox (Turing’s mentor), and Harry Egan (as Turing’s duplicitous teen-age lover, Ron Miller) exudes macho cockiness, and looks like a young, skinny Gary Neville. Natalie Dew, as Turing’s love-sick colleague, has little to work with. Mark Oosterveen’s slick, sly, black-hatted spook harks back to the entertaining character played by Jeremy Northam in the factually-challenged 2001 film ‘Enigma’, and provides much-needed comic relief.
Robert Hastie’s direction is unfussy, unshowy, and echoes Turing’s personality with its hesitancy and lack of energy. But, like Rigby’s Turing, bursts into occasional life, providing moments of exciting verbal gymnastics such as Turing’s lengthy speech about electronic brains, and some sparkling exchanges with Rawi’s Knox character.

Turing’s tale is an epic tragedy, and I really wanted to enjoy this production far more than I did. Maybe the story was too familiar, or the recent Cumberbatch film, ‘The Imitation Game’, too fresh in the memory. This was a dull-looking, stripped-back affair, but could have been so much more thrilling.

ALL OR NOTHING: The Mod Musical

The lovely MARK HAZARD reviewed this show for me (originally published at soundsmagazine.co.uk)

Opera House, Manchester
Until Sat 22nd October 2016
Written by Carol Harrison
Directed by Tony McHale
Review by Mark Hazard
2.5 out of 5 stars



Here we go with another bloody ‘jukebox musical’. At least we get to hear some classic songs played live. But that’s about it. I went to see the show with a friend who actually saw the band live, in the 1960s (and even jumped on their car bonnet once), and she thought this show was rubbish (but she did enjoy hearing the songs, which is something). 
Opening with a bang, the curtain rises, and the band are in full flow, belting out ‘Rolling Over’, and getting things off to a cracking start. Tim Edwards looks the spitting (and snarling) image of the young Steve Marriott, and has all the required onstage energy, moves, and barely-contained aggression. The song halts mid-way, as Steve loses his cool, and attempts to smash his guitar over the keyboards, but is frozen mid swing. So, the stage is set, and wandering in from the auditorium like a drunken, lank-haired Denis Waterman (not a pretty sight, I grant you), comes the older Steve (played with music hall gusto by a twinkly-eyed, semi psychotic Chris Simmons). Older Steve is our guide to the story of The Small Faces, and provides a cheery, half-sloshed account of the familiar rags-to-riches tale of four East End kids who came together to create the archetypal ‘Mod’ band.

The set looks like a 1960s East End back yard, although far more garishly-lit and cheerful, suggesting we’re in “gotta sing, gotta dance” OTT musical theatre land. Unfortunately we were. Everything about this show is brash, larger-than-life, with caricature performances, broad humour, and knockabout slapstick. Daniel Beales plays a range of characters, in a variety of (intentionally, one hopes) ill-fitting wigs, and provides some much-needed belly laughs with affectionate portraits of Tony Blackburn, Sonny Bono, and eccentric genius Stanley Unwin. It’s all very entertaining, energetic, and easy on the eye, but a little lazy. There’s no attempt to understand the various personalities, nor any analysis of their DNA, motivations, or psychology. As expected, the focus is on the multi-talented Steve Marriott, but it’s a thinly-sketched character. We’re presented with a stereotypically cheeky, impish cockney kid, setting fires in school wastepaper baskets, and larking about at the expense of his education. Marriott is keen to do his own thing – raucous, loud, ear-splitting rhythm ‘n blues, and gets a little miffed when ordered by his gangster of a manager, Don Arden (a blustering, menacing Russell Floyd) to sing more commercial ‘poppy’ stuff such as ‘Sha La La La Lee’. The thing is, though, that we never really get in to Marriott’s (or anybody else’s) head.
 Simmons’ Older Steve is the real star of the show, giving glimpses of darkness, and irrepressible energy, and almost saves the day with a final symbolic/surreal confrontation with his brassy harridan of a mother, Kay (played with Barbara Windsor-esque restraint by writer Carole Harrison) which looks wildly out of place in such a brash circus of a production. This is basically a tribute band evening, which is no bad thing if that’s your can of Pepsi Max, but so many shows like this miss huge opportunities. Immense talents like Steve Marriott deserve so much more than a rehash of hit songs, and a perfunctory history lesson. What made the man tick? What’s the macro story? Rather than a chirpy, brightly-coloured, Willy Wonka style makeover of an episode of EastEnders, why not dig deeper, and wider? Add some depth. Use the strengths of live theatre. Oh, and we end with a sing-a-long, with Older Steve acting as ringmaster to cajole the audience to their feet for a less than impromptu standing ovation. I stayed sitting, of course.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

The Lakes International Comic Art Festival 2016




Kendal
14 - 16th October 2016


Event highlights reviewed by Brian Gorman (with additional notes by SM Worsey)


Creatrix To Cartoonistas: When Women Lead The Way

Traditionally seen as a ‘man’s world’, the comics business has recently grown up quite a lot, and some of today’s most exciting new work is coming from women. Nicola Streeten was an ideal chair, and the audience (which included a decent percentage of men) enjoyed a cheerful, and informative hour. Some initial trouble with the audio-visual element didn’t manage to dampen the panel’s enthusiasm, and actually added to the morning’s enjoyment as the individual creators (including Jade Sarson, Tillie Walden, Johanna Rojola, and Hannah Berry) improvised well. A discussion on the history of women artists took in the cultural problems of gender discrimination when it came to life drawing classes. Victorian values, in particular, dictated that women should not be allowed to draw other women (and certainly not men) naked. Female artists were encouraged to draw and paint landscapes, flowers, and more conservative subject matter. It is only relatively recently, that women have been taken seriously when attempting to tackle more challenging subjects. The panel agreed that having dedicated sections of bookshops, for women creators, was a bad move, as they felt it to be very patronising, and sending out the wrong message. Gender is only one issue when it comes to barriers for creators, and other areas such as race, and social background, should also be considered. Many young artists cannot support themselves, in their early careers, and more could be done to help the more disadvantaged. The conclusion was that women are very much part of the comics world, now, and more than capable of holding their own.


Roberto Bartual: A Masterclass In Reading Comics

Limited to just 15 participants, this was a pretty intimate, informal, and fascinating talk by a man who certainly knows his stuff. Roberto was a charming, humorous, and encouraging host, and the 90 minute session simply flew by as he took us through the basics of what constitutes a comic strip. Kicking off with a four panel classic from Charles Schulz’s ‘Peanuts’, Roberto explained just how things work when conveying ideas and narrative in sequential art. Placement of panels, composition, and (perhaps, most importantly) what happens BETWEEN the panels (in the mind’s eye of the reader) were examined, with the conclusion that the comics medium offers a unique way to communicate a story. Another example of the power of comics was a multi-panel piece from acclaimed Spanish artist Paco Roca. Sixteen small, almost identical, panels depicted a relatively static, and initially uninspiring scene in the hallway of an ordinary house. On closer examination, there was a wealth of detail, action, and unseen drama. Without patronising his audience, Roberto allowed us to question the piece, and gradually draw our own conclusions as to what exactly might be going on in the story. Once again, a great deal of the narrative was communicated in very subtle ways, with the reader filling in the artist’s intentional blanks. Following these entertaining examples of the use of panels and composition, Roberto then showed us how Alan Moore can plant a world of detail into a remarkably small space, with a page of the award-winning ‘The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen’. Fascinating stuff, truly inspiring, and a wonderful examination of just what the comics medium is capable of.


You Ask, We Tell! Helping Creators Pitch To Publishers, The Press, And Comics Shops

Stephen L Holland from the award-winning independent, Nottingham comicbook retailer, Page 45, was a superb host for this essential guide to breaking into the exciting world of comics. Articulate, informed, and with professional presentational skills, Stephen told it like it is. The central message of ‘do your own thing, and don’t worry about the big boys’ came through loud and clear. Page 45’s biggest selling graphic novel of 2015 was independently published; beating everything produced by DC (which is owned by the mega corporation, Time Warner), and their biggest selling comic was also self-published (again, beating the likes of DC and Marvel at their own game). Stephen’s passion for independent work, written & drawn from the heart, was obvious, and inspired everyone in the room. Joined by Avery Hill Publishing’s Ricky Miller, Katriona Chapman (self-publisher, freelancer, etc.), and Andy Oliver (editor at Broken Frontier review site), Stephen provided a goldmine of information for beginners and veterans alike. Print runs, print companies, review sites, retailers; everything was covered, and many individuals, websites, and retail outlets were recommended. With the recent advances in technology, print-on-demand, and the gradual acceptance of comics into the mainstream (particularly in the UK), there has never been a better time for individual creators to get their work into print, widely reviewed, and on to the shop shelves. Key tips for creators included making sample artwork available online, and in some instances whole comic books (although, I wasn’t sure about this). Stephen was adamant that people who loved a comic book they’d read online, would then want to own the physical product. If you manage to get your product in a shop, don’t then offer it at a lower price on your own website, as this really upsets retailers (although, they DO expect to be under-cut by the likes of Amazon). A thoroughly entertaining, and valuable sixty minutes.

Art by Bryan Talbot

The Red Virgin: Mary & Bryan Talbot

‘The Red Virgin & The Vision Of Utopia’ is the third collaboration between 2012’s Costa Biography Award-Winning husband & wife team, Mary and Bryan Talbot. Celebrating ‘the utopian urge in 19th century literature and politics, and the origins of science-fiction’, The Talbots’ latest graphic novel is a tour-de-force; epic, entertaining, hugely informative, and beautifully rendered. Telling the story of legendary French anarchist, and revolutionary feminist, Louise Michel, the book is another triumph for the godfather of British comics, with some simply stunning imagery accompanying a painstakingly-researched script that justly celebrates a truly remarkable woman. The story of the Paris Commune, which has rarely been covered in popular culture, is an important aspect of the book; a brief period in history, but one of enormous importance (and particularly relevant in our current unsettled climate). I have seen Bryan speak at events several times over the years, and he is a naturally warm, unassuming, and inspirational orator. With many of Bryan’s wonderful visuals displayed on a large screen, he and Mary spoke vividly about the book, supplying many fascinating historical facts, complimented by their own personal voyage of discovery. The audio-visual presentation also included the added bonus of a variety of personal photographs from their epic research (apart from Montmartre and Paris, they travelled across the world to New Caledonia, a French territory 700 miles East of Australia). The Talbots make a very entertaining team, and are clearly relishing working together, and discussing the fruits of their labour. This was a relaxed, entertaining, inspiring, and eye-opening talk, enhanced by the expert interviewing skills of the evergreen Paul Gravett.

'Black Peider' and a lucky volunteer from the audience.


The Knockabout Maltroom Of Mischief


Saturday night entertainment was a superb cabaret, which kicked off with comics legend Gilbert Shelton on boogie-woogie piano. Admitting to being a little the worse for wear, the iconic Mr Shelton regaled us with some 60s classics, and the odd anecdote about hanging out with the likes of Janis Joplin. Next up was one of the most bizarre acts I’ve ever seen, and one of the funniest; Petteri Tikannen. In his guise as ‘Black Peider’, Tikannen crashed onto the stage like wrestling legend Giant Haystacks, sporting heavy metal face fuzz, and dressed in skin-tight black lycra. His enthusiasm was incredible, and I didn’t know whether it was all a big comedy act, or the man meant it. I think he bloody meant it! Screaming out hilariously derivative, 60 second ‘songs’, and brandishing his guitar like a huge phallic symbol, the man-mountain was pure raw, unfettered, energy. Rounding this surreal evening off was poet, and singer-songwriter, Rory Motion. A hilarious cross between John Shuttleworth and Jasper Carrott, Motion had the audience eating out of his hand with a succession of rib-tickling poems, and clever, satirical songs. An unbelievably enjoyable evening, in a fantastic venue (The Brewery Arts Centre).  

http://www.comicartfestival.com/

Thursday, August 18, 2016

THE HAUNTING OF BLAINE MANOR (a second review)

Jo Haydock, Phil Dennison, and Peter Slater
(photo by Shay Rowan)

Written & directed by Joe O’Byrne
The King’s Arms, Salford
Runs until 20th August 2016


It’s not often I go to see a theatrical production for a second time, and so soon after seeing it once (just a few months ago, on its debut at Manchester’s Hope Mill), but Joe O’Byrne’s cracking ghost story is well worth it. It didn’t matter that I already knew the ingenious twists and turns, as there are so many enjoyable elements in O’Byrne’s love letter to the golden age of Hollywood spine-chillers.
You know the great gag in the movie ‘Spinal Tap’, where the amps go “up to eleven”? Well, I wish the standard five star system went up to six, because this stunning cracker of a show would get the full set of pointy things from me.
Imagine the great Martin Scorcese suddenly popping up at Cannes with a good old-fashioned twisty-turny, Hitchcockian haunted house comedy-thriller. A renowned director, known primarily for his hard-hitting, near-the knuckle, often controversial, and grittily realistic dramas. Bit of a shock to the system, right? Well, local hero Joe O’Byrne (Greater Manchester’s finest chronicler of the modern day social conscience) is our very own Scorcese; justifiably critically acclaimed for his bruising series of plays and films set on the fictional Paradise Heights housing estate, and he’s done just that.
‘The Haunting Of Blaine Manor’ is a gloriously written rollercoaster of a play, chockful of golden era Hollywood in-jokes, nods to classic movies featuring the likes of Vincent Price, Basil Rathbone, Humphrey Bogart et al. There’s a great Ed Wood vibe (the ‘worst director in Hollywood History’, wonderfully portrayed in Tim Burton’s best movie ‘Ed Wood’), but where Mr Wood was a truly awful writer (hugely optimistic, but ultimately excruitiatingly untalented), Mr Byrne is an absolute master of his dark arts.  
It’s England, 1953, and there’s some rum goings-on up at the creepy old Blaine Manor. Proto X-Files investigator, Dr Roy Earle (a suitably crumpled, jaded, and laconic Peter Slater) arrives to attend a séance, and is keen to debunk anything remotely supernatural. Joining him are a rather colourful bunch of brilliantly realised characters, including the uber camp, eye-liner worrying, ferret-like medium, ‘Cairo’ (a scenery-chewing, scene-stealing Andrew Yates), and the theatrical, crazy-haired, eccentric Adolphus Scarabus (Phil Dennison supplying understated gravitas to a character previously played by Ian Curly as a much more arch, and arrogant figure). The seductive, muck-raking journalist Vivian (a sassy, and cheeky, Jo Haydock), genial and enigmatic manservant Grady (O’Byrne himself, giving an eye-twinklingly, Brando-esque delivery), and the obviously dodgy keeper of Blaine Manor, Vincent (Daniel Thackeray, managing to be both subtle and melodramatic at the same time; channelling the spirit of the great man himself, Vincent Price). When the motley ensemble are told the planned séance is cancelled (due to the untimely death of a fellow guest psychic), the game is afoot when bad weather maroons our sinister six on the windswept moors.
Set in a single, elegantly decorated room, with the high-domed ceiling of the intimate attic auditorium of The King’s Arms, the atmosphere is beautifully claustrophobic, and unsettling. Our dirty half dozen are crammed together, and it’s only a matter of time before booze and blood are spilled, secrets come tumbling out, and twist upon twist revealed. I honestly thought I’d guessed where it was all heading, but O’Byrne pulled the metaphorical rug right out from under us with a cracking final scene. I can’t begin to reveal any of the secrets of Blaine Manor, but Joe O’Byrne must have sold (or at least pawned for a few weeks) his very soul to write this. It’s all perfectly paced by O’Byrne’s directing, and when the shocks come, they are never telegraphed, keeping the audience on their toes throughout. The dead are very much alive and kicking at Blaine Manor, with offstage characters making their otherworldly presence felt, and causing many audience members to twitch nervously at times, thanks to a nerve-jangling soundscape by Justin Wetherill, throbbing menacingly throughout. This is a hell of an entertaining evening, with a perfect ensemble cast, some clever sleight-of-hand stage business, and a beautifully handled finale that certainly packs a pile-driver of a punch. 


Six out of five stars.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

THE HAUNTING OF BLAINE MANOR

Joe O'Byrne (as Grady), and Dan Thackeray (Vincent)
Photo: Shay Rowan



Written & directed by Joe O’Byrne

Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester

Reviewed on 10th April 2016
Future performances 16th to 20th August at The King’s Arms, Salford


Review by Brian Gorman

You know the great gag in the movie ‘Spinal Tap’, where the amps go “up to eleven”? Well, I wish the standard five star system went up to six, because this stunning cracker of a show would get the full set of pointy things from me.
Imagine the great Martin Scorcese suddenly popping up at Cannes with a good old-fashioned twisty-turny, Hitchcockian haunted house comedy-thriller. A renowned director, known primarily for his hard-hitting, near-the knuckle, often controversial, and grittily realistic dramas. Bit of a shock to the system, right? Well, local hero Joe O’Byrne (Greater Manchester’s finest chronicler of the modern day social conscience) is our very own Scorcese; justifiably critically acclaimed for his bruising series of plays and films set on the fictional Paradise Heights housing estate, and he’s done just that.
‘The Haunting Of Blaine Manor’ is a gloriously written rollercoaster of a play, chockful of golden era Hollywood in-jokes, nods to classic movies featuring the likes of Vincent Price, Basil Rathbone, Humphrey Bogart et al. There’s a great Ed Wood vibe (the ‘worst director in Hollywood History’, wonderfully portrayed in Tim Burton’s best movie ‘Ed Wood’), but where Mr Wood was a truly awful writer (hugely optimistic, but ultimately excruitiatingly untalented), Mr Byrne is an absolute master of his dark arts.  
It’s England, 1953, and there’s some rum goings-on up at the creepy old Blaine Manor. Proto X-Files investigator, Dr Roy Earle (superbly played by a laconic, and aptly Bogartian, Peter Slater) arrives to attend a séance, and is keen to debunk anything remotely supernatural. Joining him are a rather colourful bunch of brilliantly realised characters, including the camp, eye-liner worrying, ferret-like medium, ‘Cairo’ (a scenery-chewing, scene-stealing Andrew Yates), and the far more domineering, supremely confident, fellow spirit mitherer Scarabus (Ian Curley, suitably dynamic). The seductive, muck-raking journalist Vivian (a prowling, man-eating Jo Haydock), genial and enigmatic manservant Grady (O’Byrne himself in slick, Kevin Spacey-esque mode), and the obviously dodgy keeper of Blaine Manor, Vincent (Daniel Thackeray, managing to be both subtle and melodramatic at the same time; harking at the man himself, Vincent Price in ‘Witchfinder General’). When the motley ensemble are told the planned séance is cancelled (due to the untimely death of a fellow guest psychic), the game is afoot when bad weather maroons our sinister six on the windswept moors.
Set in a single, elegantly decorated room, with the bare brick walls, high ceiling, and atmospheric backdrop of the suitably spooky, and dilapidated, Victorian Hope Mill, the action is beautifully claustrophobic. Our dirty half dozen are crammed together, and it’s only a matter of time before booze and blood are spilled, secrets come tumbling out, and twist upon twist revealed. I honestly thought I’d guessed where it was all heading, but O’Byrne pulled the metaphorical rug right out from under us with a cracking final scene. I can’t begin to reveal any of the secrets of Blaine Manor, but Joe O’Byrne must have sold (or at least pawned for a few weeks) his very soul to write this. It’s all perfectly paced by O’Byrne’s directing, and when the shocks come, they are never telegraphed, keeping the audience on their toes throughout. Mix in a nerve-jangling soundscape by Justin Wetherill, throbbing menacingly throughout, and helping to shred nerves already barely held together by a thread, and you have a perfect recipe for one hell of an entertaining evening.


The full six out of five stars it is!

Monday, November 23, 2015

ASCENSION



Written & directed by Craig Hepworth
The King’s Arms, Salford
Until 24th November 2015

Review 


Ascension is the latest production from Manchester fringe trailblazers Vertigo Productions, and is not for the faint of heart. Or those averse to full frontal nudity. Or BDSM. Or S & M. Or murder. Or blood. Or sex. Or animal cruelty. Or bottoms. Or…, actually, I think I’d better stop there, as I’m guessing that you’ve got the picture by now. Yes, this one’s got it all, folks. Something to offend everybody. Well, those who delight in being offended, that is. Craig Hepworth has set his new stage play in modern day America, but takes his inspiration from the notorious Leopold and Loeb case of 1924. Described as ‘The crime of the century’, the infamous murder of a teenage boy, by a pair of self-obsessed, rich young things with superiority complexes (they actually considered themselves ‘Supermen’, after overdosing on Nietzche) became an international sensation. Leopold and Loeb considered themselves above the law, and set out to prove how clever they were by meticulously planning and executing the murder of an innocent 14 year old (they failed. Spectacularly). Hepworth’s script takes the basic theme of deluded personalities seeking to impose their will on others, and fashions a quite terrifying tale of two souls descending into madness, and destroying everybody they come into contact with.
The two central performances are flawless. Richard Allen and Ryan McMyler play a gay couple, Richard and Nathan, superglued together in a violent, depraved, and mutually destructive sadomasochistic relationship. Nathan is the dominant partner; portrayed with frightening intensity by the livewire McMyler. His adoring, and supremely subservient lover, Richard (a deceptively controlled Allen) gets the brown end of the stick whilst suffering an endless barrage of slaps, punches, cigarette burns, and rough sexual assaults. From the very beginning, it is Richard who is the stronger man, and Nathan who we see gradually losing his mind. Noir-ish flashbacks detail the characters’ individual backstories – Nathan is a spoilt rich boy, delighting in abusing animals, while Richard is the mild-mannered kid suffering bullying at school. Video excerpts of the men’s’ lives are shot in a beautifully noir style, reminiscent of the nightmare imagery of film-maker David Lynch. The whole story zips by in a pacey, movie-esque style, with no fat to be trimmed. I’m not entirely convinced we needed to have the story set in the US, but maybe that’s just a personal thing (it could have been even more terrifying, particularly for a Salford audience, to have it set in the north of England). Director Hepworth indulges writer Hepworth, and has an ensemble of mask-wearing, supporting characters play out a variety of scene-setting pieces utilising dance, mime, and physical theatre. Almost every character is semi-naked throughout, which gives the play a raw, edgy atmosphere, particularly when the actors lend their bodies for use as tables and chairs by the two leads.

As I said, not for the faint hearted.

Monday, November 02, 2015

HUMPTY'S BONES

Review

Written by Sean Mason
Directed by Peter M George
The Seven Oaks pub, Manchester

Until Wed 4th Nov

Reviewed on 28.10.15





Humpty’s Bones is the latest production from the always intriguing, always entertaining, and always adventurous Sytheplays Ltd. Local legend Sean Mason has adapted Simon Clark’s creepy short story for the stage, and the relatively small upstairs room at the Seven Oaks pub is the perfect venue to frighten the collective pants off any punter venturing there on a misty Autumnal evening. Claustrophobic, wood-panelled, ancient-looking décor, and a truly foreboding atmosphere. Perfect for a Halloween treat. It’s a very Nigel Kneale-esque story of inquisitive folk messing around with ancient and still-bearing-a-grudge supernatural entities. On this occasion, a grave is disturbed in a back garden, and a collection of bones are being examined by a dim-witted amateur archaeologist, Heather Laird (played by an impish Lauron Stirrup). The skeleton’s head is missing, and things just don’t add up. Enter our young heroine, the wonderfully-monikered Eden Page (a delightful Catryn Philbin) to stir things up, annoy the locals, and provide some much-needed distraction for Heather’s cranky, sexually frustrated, and boorish husband Curtis (Andrew Marsden). There’s a League Of Gentlemen aspect to this gruesome little piece, and, at one point, I half expected Pat Brocklehurst’s mad old bat Ada Hezzle to be unmasked as Steve Pemberton in drag. The old hag’s cryptic warnings and crazed mutterings fail to deter our lovely Eden from getting involved with stuff she shouldn’t get involved with, and so events spiral towards an eruption of murder, ghoulish activities, and eventual blood-chilling horror. Marsden’s Curtis is a frightening creation, like a psycho scarecrow lashing out at all and sundry, desperate for the touch of a good woman (or any woman, really), and batshit crazy enough to ignore the werewolf-like creature literally at his front door, preferring instead to focus his narrow-sighted attentions on the less than impressed Eden. Full marks to Greg Hulme’s moody and unsettling music, and Peter M George’s full-bloodied direction and sound design (with Sytheplay’s Daniel Thackeray). Be warned – don’t mess with the dead, ‘cos dem bones is gonna walk around. Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones!